15.09.34, Moreau, Eschatological Subjects

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Lewis Beer

The Medieval Review 15.09.34

Moreau, J. M. Eschatological Subjects: Divine and Literary Judgment in Fourteenth-Century French Poetry. Interventions: New Studies in Medieval Culture. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2014. pp. 238. ISBN: 978-0-8142-1269-1 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Lewis Beer
University of Warwick
beerlewis@gmail.com

This fascinating and insightful book focuses on the work of three fourteenth-century French authors: Guillaume de Deguileville, Guillaume de Machaut, and Jean Froissart. In each case, Moreau explores a pair of closely related poems, one of which functions as an "apology" (both in the sense of a recantation and a justification) for the other. Each author stages a pseudo-autobiographical trial, in which a first-person narrator (standing in, ambiguously, for the author) is required to reflect on, revise, retract, and/or defend one of the poet's earlier works. These poems use eschatological motifs to explore the relationship between authors, their readers, and God, and in particular the ethical concerns that define that relationship.

The book's argument is founded on the premise that eschatology is not simply concerned with the "last things," and that, especially in the late medieval period, the Judgment Day was conceived of as "immanent" rather than necessarily "imminent," an ongoing process that pervades everyday life through one's interactions with other people. In the poems under discussion, this conception of divine judgment is applied to the specific circumstances of the author, who must forever confront the shifting, unpredictable judgments of their readers, and who must rewrite and revalidate their own work in response to those judgments. Paradoxically, it is only through this difficult, destabilising process that these late medieval authors can establish the coherence and value of their literary output and their own identities as authors.

After a clear introduction outlining the book's key ideas, the first chapter offers a broad discussion of the ways in which thirteenth- and fourteenth-century texts imagined the human subject being put on trial before God. Despite the antilegalistic attitude of many portrayals of divine judgment in this period, poets began to cast themselves in the position of the rhetor divinus, a lawyer-like figure who could apply his or her particular skill-set in an eschatological context. Dante, famously, combined the poetic, legal, and eschatological registers in his Commedia, but French authors of the same period, especially Deguileville, offered more detailed accounts of the technical apparatus of divine justice, and of the human subject's vehement self-defence.

The popular conception of the Virgin Mary as Advocata Nostra, and her role as humanity's legal representation in "Devil's Rights" poetry and morality plays, helped to lend authority to vernacular poetry's role in obtaining God's mercy. In such texts, Mary was seen to win her case through clever rhetoric, legalese, and appeals to emotion, whereas the Devil was often portrayed as possessing a rigidly textual, literalistic knowledge of the law. What might otherwise be seen as ethically dubious legal manipulations became ways of facilitating God's ineffable mercy, showing how the New Law could miraculously triumph over the Old. Skilful practitioners of "second rhetoric" acquired a new spiritual authority, as did those who judged the devotional poetry performed at the competitive puys: in this way, the judgment not only of the author but also of the reader or listener (the petit juge) came to be identified more closely with that of God himself (the Grand Juge).

In chapter two, Moreau discusses Deguileville's Pèlerinage de l'âme (c. 1356), and its relation to the two versions of his earlier Pèlerinage de vie humaine (c. 1330-31 and 1355). It is telling that the revised version of the latter addresses a more limited audience, improves the morality of the pilgrim-narrator (taking him further away from the model offered by Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la rose), and is more straightforwardly didactic. These changes suggest that Deguileville was trying to conform more closely to an essentially pastoral conception of the ethical relationship between author and audience, in which little room should be left for the uninitiated reader to misinterpret the lesson being dispensed. In the Pèlerinage de l'âme, the pilgrim-narrator is put on trial for things he had written in the earlier poem (primarily the first version). The poet's corpus is implicitly conflated with the traditional documents of eschatological record, such as the Book of Life and the Book of Conscience, while obscure allusions to real controversies in the author's life blur the boundaries between his own spiritual fate and that of the poem's narrator. Thus, as well as treating the author's self-representation in his own poetry as a serious ethical concern, the trial also foregrounds issues to do with Deguileville's control over the compilation, reproduction, and circulation of his writing. Deguileville insists that literature involves reciprocal ethical demands between authors, readers, scribes, and distributors of literary texts, and that perceived flaws in his own poetry might more properly be attributed to those who have misrepresented or misinterpreted the texts than to the texts themselves, or to their author. The sentencing of the pilgrim-narrator to a term in Purgatory rather than Hell serves, ultimately, to validate Deguileville's continued poetic activity, as well as his right and obligation to transform himself (and his textual self) in response to the judgments of others.

Chapter three focuses on Machaut's Jugement dou roy de Navarre (c. 1349), in which the poet-narrator is put on trial by a group of women for things he had written in his earlier debate poem, the Jugement dou roy de Behaingne (mid-1330s). Moreau takes issue with critics who argue that the Navarre's prologue, a quasi-apocalyptic account of the plague, represents a manifestation of God's perfect, definitive judgment, in stark contrast to the inconclusive, limited, secular debate that follows. For Moreau, such readings are problematic in their assumption that the judgments of Machaut's readers cannot be "eschatological," and cannot overlap with the judgment of God. He contends that the Jugement Navarre effects a transformation of the eschatological, in which the narrator's arraignment by Bonneurté represents a more personal and provisional form of divine judgment, but one that is no less demanding than the Judgment Day in its insistence that the author be forever answerable to his readers. Through this transition, Machaut's poem moves away from ideals of absolute and transhistorical truth, and away from an authorial stance that tries to view the world through God's eyes, towards a privileging of endlessly vigilant flexibility and constant revision of opinions, judgments, and texts.

In chapter four, Moreau turns his attention to Froissart's Joli buisson de jonece (1372-73), whose poet-narrator relives his youthful love affair (harking back to Froissart's earlier poem, the Espinette amoureuse [c. 1369]) in a dream vision, before awakening into maturity, repenting, and composing a lay to the Virgin Mary. Moreau argues that this poem is both a retraction and a reaffirmation of earlier writing, an attempt to acknowledge and correct the moral failings of the past while still fulfilling the author's duties to his patrons--the ever-authoritative readership. Froissart casts his amorous young narrator as a version of Machaut's typical lover-narrator, foolishly in thrall to Venus and prone to making dubious judgments. The conclusion of the Joli buisson attempts to correct these youthful indiscretions and replace Venus with Jupiter as the persona's guiding deity. As with Machaut, the writer's career and corpus are shown to be defined by flexibility and change, but Froissart also traces a narrative of moral perfection that prepares the writing subject for his final judgment before God. However, the poem insists that failing to write at all would be as great a sin--against the God who bestowed talent on the writer and against the readers who paid for his work--as producing morally compromised material. The devotional lay at the end of the poem uses typological motifs to suggest that this is a spiritual fulfilment of earlier writing as well as a renunciation of it; the narrator's foolish, venereal younger self is validated as a prefiguration of future maturity and redemption. Again, the emphasis here is more on the value of constant reinvention (in dialogue with readers) than on absolute truths.

In the conclusion, as well as summarising the book's main arguments, Moreau contrasts the late medieval understanding of human judgment, as described in the preceding chapters, with the privileging of reason, subjective opinion, and personal experience from the fifteenth century to the modern era. Christine de Pizan, Michel de Montaigne, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are cited as emblematic of the way in which authors came to assume a position of self-sufficient authority in making judgments, without feeling the strong sense of ethical obligation towards readers which characterises many late medieval texts. Moreau then argues that the late medieval writing subject has a great deal in common with the postmodern, Althusserian, Levinasian subject for whom the Self is defined through interaction with the Other. As Moreau had signalled in his introduction, Emmanuel Levinas provides essential theoretical background to the conception of eschatology in play here. The book concludes that language is both a source of anxiety and a means of salvation for the author: its ambiguity and uncertainty ensure that one's responsibility to others will never be definitively fulfilled, but the same ambiguity and uncertainty also allow for the author's self-defence and self-revision in response to the summons of the Other.

This book will be of great interest and value to scholars of late medieval literature, and not only to those who specialise in the authors under discussion. Moreau's argument gestures, in provocative ways, towards Italian and English writing of the same period, and should give Dante and Chaucer scholars much food for thought. The writing is refreshingly lucid and the argument easy to follow. The book fits comfortably into a scholarly trend, much in fashion since Alastair Minnis's work of the mid-1980s, which sees convergences between secular and theological discourses in late medieval writing, and which celebrates the development of vernacular literary authority in this period. However, this is not to suggest that the book is unduly safe or conventional in its intellectual thrust. Moreau's engagement with both primary and secondary materials is confident, and his readings often unusual and ingenious. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this book is its use of theory: although Levinas is only directly referenced in the introduction and conclusion, his ideas inform the argument and overall purpose of the book at the very deepest level. This helps to lend substance and relevance to Moreau's central claims.

As with any scholarly work, some aspects of the argument are open to question. Moreau often asserts that, in these poems, God's judgment of the author is dependent on that of readers as they receive and respond to the texts in question. He supports this claim with reference to biblical passages such as Matthew 25, in which Jesus speaks with the voice of the least of his brethren, and in which divine judgment assesses us, not only directly, but also via the people we interacted with during life. Thus, we are told, the reader (associated with the needy people referenced in the "Sheep and Goats" parable) sits alongside God in the Throne of Judgment, and God's verdict on the author can only be just insofar as it takes the reader's judgment into account: "even through the most erratic or contradictory judgments of readers, God is trying the poet" (26). This is in some ways a clever and fruitful way to approach the poems, but in the absence of more substantial theological support it feels like a bit of a stretch. When Christ speaks with the voice of lowly people, his judgments are not erratic or contradictory, as those of the lowly people themselves might be. Christ does assert that when we neglect our neighbour we neglect Him, but it is still Christ, and not our neighbour, who passes judgment on us. Lazarus may sit beside Abraham in heaven, observing the rich man's punishment, but it is not Lazarus's prerogative to refuse mercy to the dead sinner; the Good Samaritan would still be rewarded by God if he were despised by the recipient of his charity. Furthermore, while Moreau sometimes acknowledges the humour of the poems he analyses, his eagerness to imbue them with ethical seriousness sometimes leads him astray, in that he does not always take into account the wide disparity between, for instance, failing to feed the hungry and writing a love poem whose conclusions some readers playfully disagree with. In short, the idea that readers' judgments are "godly" needs either to be supported more rigorously or qualified.

There are also times when Moreau uses slightly tenuous evidence to support his points, especially in his analysis of the notoriously hard-to-interpret Jugement Navarre. For example, he cites this passage from Machaut's poem:

and translates it thus:

Guillaume, if you are worthy enough you could easily act to uphold precisely the contrary opinion. For what is contrary is correct in all questions of love" (129).

The word endrois can indeed be translated as "question," but bons has been left untranslated, and it is hard to see how it could fit into the final line as Moreau interprets it. Could such contrariety really play an integral role in the idealised courtly space Bonneurté seems, at first glance, to be evoking? Although he acknowledges the most obvious sense of these lines--that the contrary of the verdict of the Jugement Behaingne is the correct one, Moreau then argues:

"these verses could just as easily be read to express that the contrary position, whatever it might be, is always the right one in matters of love, that contrariety itself is the defining criterion or law ('li drois') of good judgment in this domain, since love is founded on the coming together of opposites, the encounter of the self with others" (129-30).

This is a characteristically ingenious take on the poem, but also a typical overstatement in its assertion that the passage could "just as easily" be read in this way. It should be acknowledged more clearly that this is a counterintuitive reading that goes firmly against the grain of what we find in the poem. In context, Bonneurté cannot possibly mean what Moreau claims she does, although we might subversively discern such an idea beneath the playful surface of Machaut's poem.

Moreau then brings in a couplet from the Roman de la rose--Ainsi va des contraires choses: / Les unes sont des autres gloses[So it is with contrary things / Each is the other's gloss] (ll. 21577-78, Le roman de la Rose, ed. Armand Strubel)--to support the idea that erotic love is "[d]ependent upon the theoretical convergence of contrary qualities" (130), which is in itself a tenable idea. However, he does not refer to the context of the passage in question, which happens not to be about the "theoretical convergence of contraries," but rather the clear distinctions (differance [21584]) between contraries. Indeed, Jean's narrator repeatedly uses the word defenir and its variants (21579, 21582, 21586) to insist on the importance of being able to define good and bad separately by gaining experience of both.

Later, Moreau cites Doubtance's accusation that Guillaume must have attended l'escole / ...d'aler en change [the school of change] (Jugement Navarre, 3112-13) and claims that although this is ostensibly an attempt to expose Guillaume's "deceitful rhetoric," it is really a testimony to Bonneurté's education of the narrator, as she "has indeed taught him the literary and ethical merit of changing his opinions, by putting him through a trial that enacts the perpetual renegotiation of textual meaning"; we might thus conclude that Bonneurté's "demand that Guillaume revise his judgment...has more to do with the act of revision, than with the new opinion itself" (137). In fact, though, Doubtance is responding directly to Guillaume's claim that women are more changeable than men. As the next five lines show, she is not primarily exposing his "deceitful rhetoric," but is accusing him of projection (since he is changeable, he thinks that others are too), and vehemently affirming that what he has said is not at all true of women. Moreau mentions Guillaume's misogynistic outburst and argues that the female courtiers respond by "mak[ing] a virtue of the supposedly feminine vice of fickleness" (136), but does not give a clear sense of what Doubtance is replying to, or of the overall gist of her speech. The point being made here is a clever and thought-provoking one, but Moreau has elided those features of the passage that would complicate his interpretation.

While Moreau accuses Guillaume of being "obsess[ed] with certainty" (128), this seems an inaccurate assessment of the character we find in this poem, who, even at his most belligerent and defensive, couches almost everything he says in self-effacing qualifications and outright admissions that he might be wrong. Insofar as he does insist on the rightness of his point of view, he does so with far less confidence and consistency than do his accusers. The women who put Guillaume on trial are at pains to dissociate themselves from changeability, so it is hard to see how they could be promoting such changeability as "a positive model of creative power for the poet" (137). It is clear throughout the debate that the bone of contention is indeed the alleged misogyny of Guillaume's earlier poem and the overt misogyny of his present utterances, not his lack of flexibility, and that the women simply want to see these errors atoned for and corrected through an acknowledgment of the "right" point of view. Having said that, I am largely in agreement with Moreau's essential point--that underneath all this, the poem is really a celebration of mutability and textual revision--but feel that it needs to be substantiated more carefully with reference to details in the text.

Similar objections could be raised against the work of many leading scholars in the field, and I hope that the above remarks convey something of the quality and insight of Moreau's work, as well as those elements in it that I take issue with: the fact that there is much to disagree with in the details of his analysis is part of what makes it so stimulating. Moreover, the chapters on Deguileville and Froissart give a more balanced sense of the tensions in those authors' work, rather than overemphasising one side of the equation, as the Machaut chapter sometimes does. One comes away from this book eager to reread the primary texts, equipped with fresh questions about and perspectives on them. Overall, Eschatological Subjects is a pleasure to read and an extremely valuable contribution to the field.

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